6 Month Vista MCE Report Card

Jul 23 2007

vista_logo_320x200.pngWe are almost 6 months into Vista being released to the public, and if you look around forums across the web, users are still not exactly sold on upgrading. There are many reasons that could be attributed to this: cost of Vista, not supported hardware, etc. But, I think the #1 reason is that people just don't see the worth to spend the time and money associated with upgrading. A while back, Matt Goyer (when he worked for Microsoft) posted a blog about all the new features that were in Vista, in response to critics who said nothing new was added.

I'd like to take a bit to go over that fairly in-depth list and address it piece by piece with a concentration on how it relates to the world of Home Theater PC Enthusiasts such as myself.  To do so in the easiest way, I will sort each section by Hype and Reality which will help determine a final score.  By "Hype" I am referring to what the buzz was about this feature before launch, and "Reality" will mean how it was implemented / accepted after launch.

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Vista MCE Hype Page 1

Support for 64bit machines

Hype: Media Center now comes in 64-bit flavor, as well as all the skus

Reality: This has been more of a headache than a help. With users encountering not just hardware driver issues, but also 3rd party MCE plugins that refuse to work on x64. Add to that the fact that MCE really does not benefit in any concrete way from the x64 architecture. Maybe time will tell and x64 will eventually be stunningly fast, but I don't buy the hype, and neither have the majority of MCE users. 

You can upgrade to Windows Vista Media Center from XP

Hype: You can now upgrade your machine to have Media Center from WindowsXP

Reality: How smooth the upgrade goes is debatable, and I still recommend anyone considering this to do a clean install...but the promise is true. If you have a system you really don't want to erase, and want to have Media Center, it is possible.


Media Center is included as part of two Windows Vista SKUs

Hype: Vista will not be it's own version, but will be included in Home Premium & Ultimate versions.

Reality: Most users still have no idea which version they'll need. The chart clearly needs some work.

No need to buy a Media Center, you can install it yourself

Hype: You can now buy a Media Center OS retail copy, with support from Microsoft

Reality: A lot of users may not even have known, but previous versions of MCE were all OEM copies, meaning Microsoft offered no support. This was definitely a nice showing & shows support for Media Center.

Domain join

Irrelevant for the majority of HTPC users so I won't discuss.

Available worldwide in every locale that we ship Windows to (160 new locales! 15 new languages!)

Hype: Worldwide availability of Windows, to over 160!

Reality: You guessed it, only 27 countries have EPG Guide data for Media Center's TV Guide. Anyone outside the supported countries either has to use a hack, or a different software to have that feature.

More content on screen in our photos/music/videos/TV libraries

Hype & Reality: If you have a widescreen TV, Vista MCE looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Period. I'm sure some hate it, but for the most part, this definitely fulfills my requirements for sexiness & filling my widescreen. You can see from the below comparison images, there's a LOT more albums on screen to view at one time.

musiclibrary.JPG

Faster perf for the music library

Hype: I'll translate what it really meant: Music Library won't take an eternity to load if you have over 1000 songs.

Reality: I think this promise was really hurt when they decided to stick with NTFS instead of their newer, optimized file system. While true, I have found my Vista MCE music library to be slightly faster, it still takes a while sometimes to start & definitely still not close to what a dedicated stereo could do.

 

musiclibrary3.JPG

 

Digital Cable Tuner (formerly called OCUR) support

Hype: With the simple call to your cable card company, you can ditch the big Set Top Box & simply use a cable card in your system which will grant you access to your Digital HD Channels, within the MCE System.

Reality: Boy...where to begin on this one. For starters, it's available only with pre-configured OEM systems. DIY-ers are 100% SOL. Next, it's expensive. Manufacturers have really yet to drop the price very low for these systems. Most aggravating of all, is that even people that have spent the money on these, they're having a TON of problems. From driver instability, to lack of cable card knowledge by cable installers, the installation/use process has been less than pleasant, and definitely not justifying the hefty pricetag it requires.

It was very hard to use a mouse in MCE 2005. We’ve made some big improvements to mouse handling.

I'll just toss this on the not a big deal. How this is shown as a feature is beyond me, but it's here, and I guess it does it. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to assume most MCE users prefer to use their remote rather than their keyboard.

Vista MCE Hype Page 2

Likewise, hard to use with a touch screen before, should be better now.

No experience here, but see above.

 

Run on your Tablet PC
Not MCE related

New start menu to get you to where you want to be faster

Hype: The cool new Start menu will be completely new, and will make accessing your media easier to find, and your entire system easier to use.

Reality: The new Start Menu is bad. There, I said it. I'm sorry. I think they overthought it & really have just made it more difficult to use. Why is my Videos now under Pictures+Videos? What used to take 3 clicks (which you could do with your eyes closed) to close Media Center (Left, Ok, Ok), now not only takes a lot more clicks, but is nearly impossible to do if you're not looking at the screen.

 

startmenu.jpg

 

Start photo slideshow from Music Now Playing

Hype & Reality: This really does work great. It's now very simple to search through your photos from the Now Playing screen, and start a slideshow pretty easily.
Now playing item on the start menu, should be more discoverable

Hype: The above says it all.


Reality
: This is a ridiculous feature to tout, and I hate it. The Start menu is already cluttered, and this "Now Playing" tile which comes & goes depending on if you're playing media is less than easy to figure out. Add to that it takes a lot more clicks to get to than the old faithful Thumbnail in the bottom left, and it just adds to my frustration.

More ways to slice and dice your music collection

Hype & Reality: Absolutely true, there's now a ton of different ways to sort & find through your music, either by Artist, Composer, Year, etc.


New music Now Playing

See my comments with the Now Playing above. I'm not sure why this "Now Playing" for music was separated. I guess because it's a little different, since your Videos/TV shows will still be playing in that thumb, but not big enough to separate these into 2 separate selling points.

 

musicnowplaying.jpg 

Way better queue management

Hype & Reality: Kudos here as well. Now when you add albums it adds it to your playlist unless you tell it not to. Making quick playlists & sorting through them is much easier.

View photos and videos by folder or date

Thomas Hawk, if you're listening....comment on this for me :-) I'm not that big into photos, but this is possible. Can't say how big a deal it is to photo-buffs.

Mini TV guide

Hype: Just like your 10 year old cable box has, now you have a mini tv guide you can scroll through while watching your show!
Reality: With the ability to use TV as your transparant background while looking at the guide, who uses this? Add to that, it just causes pure chaos
vistaminiguide.jpg

 

Vista MCE Hype Page 3

TV favorites/most viewed  

Hype: One of the categories in your Guide data is a "Most Viewed" which will have the channels you watch the most, so you can filter your guide to only show those stations.

Reality: In typical Microsoft fashion, you have ZERO control over these. While the idea is GREAT, the implementation is not very special. I can't imagine it would have been difficult to allow users to create their own favorites. I, for instance, have MAYBE 5 channels that I'll watch live...so I don't need 15! What if you wanted to set up favorites for you, and then for your family (I know...hard to believe, but my gf does not like the same sports channels I do).


TV categories is now discoverable

Hype: Many people never knew about categories for TV Guide Filtering. Now it's easier to find.

Reality: In MCE2005, to get to categories it was this: Guide > Guide, and you're there. In Vista MCE, in the guide, on the far left, you see the Categories menu. I actually spoke to a Microsoft employee a while back about this, and he told me that usability tests they had actually showed that people were confused when the categories appeared when they clicked Guide twice...instead they were expecting the guide to dissapear the 2nd time, as it does in Vista. So on that note, I'll say they did solve that problem, and Categories are still easy to find, and extremely useful for digital cable subscribers with 200+ channels.

categories.jpg


TV guide is an overlay

Hype: Now when you're watching TV (or even a video) and you click on Guide, rather than the playing file be a thumbnail, it's now in a transparant background (overlay), so you can continue watching your program while reviewing the guide.

Reality: This is fantastic & works great. It was a long time coming, but it does seem to work great & doesn't appear to drag on the system much.

Thumbnails in recorded TV library

Hype: Rather then just showing a list of all the programs you record, the Recorded TV Library now will have an automatically generated thumbnail from your recording, and show that along with the title & brief summary.

Reality: Works just as described. And you can even switch the view to smaller thumbnails (list view) if you have a ton of recordings. It really adds some flair to the appearance and is also pretty accurate (meaning, the thumbnail is actually from the recording). 

recordedtvthumbnails.jpg

PAL exhaustive channel scanning

Can't speak to this being in the US, but I know Jessica Zahn has worked very hard, and even traveled to Europe several times to work out bugs & find solutions.

Microsoft DVD codec

Hype: No longer do you need to use a 3rd part decoder to get Media Center to play LiveTV, as the decoder is included.

Reality: Works just as described. While some people may argue that they prefer the quality of one versus the other, the inclusion of this with MCE has reduced so many forum posts of people having problems because they simply didn't know they needed one. Kudos to Microsoft for really listening to their users on this one.

Native burning solution

Hype: You can burn a CD or DVD directly from the 10' Media Center interface, with your remote.

Reality: I might be missing something, but I do NOT have this in my Media Center. And I know I have a DVD Burner. So....I guess I'll just wait to hear other's feedback on this. This link from Microsoft's site says it's there, but I sure can't find it.

Extender platform. Now any hardware manufacturer can integrate a MCX into their TV, DVD player, etc.

Hype: More focus on extenders has improved quality & offerings, and will allow 3rd-Party Manufacturers to design their own Extenders and offer their own features in addition to the Extender framework, such as DiVx support or DVD player.

Reality: 6 months into Vista....Total of ALL MCE Vista Extenders available: 1. And guess who makes that 1? Microsoft. To date, the Xbox360 is currently the only Extender offering, and it's loud & very much overkill if you just wanted to use it as an Extender. While rumors have stated that more extenders should be available come holiday 2007 season, having to wait basically a full year for one (that's not an Xbox360) is not promising...especially considering how horrible the first generation of extenders went.

Tighter integration on start menu for third parties. You’re no longer buried in More Programs

Hype: In MCE2005, you have to go to Start, and then More Programs. You're most recent 3 programs would be to the right. In Vista, 3rd parties have the ability to add icons to their programs on the start menu tiles itself.

Reality: Great in theory, but implementation could be so much better. For starters, there is ZERO 10' settings options for users. That means if they install a program from a 3rd party (ahem...ORB...grrr) that decides to take over your Start Menu & add a thumbnail on every row, then you have to go to the web, and do some registry edits to get rid of it. Doesn't make sense, does it? Add to that, that on a specific row, you can only have one 3rd party application icon, and then you find yourself going to the new "More Programs." Where's the new one you might ask? Why it's nice and hidden, under Start > Online Media > Program Library. If anything, 3rd Party apps are MORE buried now, than ever before.

startmenu.jpg

Windows Media Center Presentation Layer, now you can build apps that have the same fidelity as Media Center

Hype & Reality: 3rd Party plugins using MCPL no longer have that cheap, obviously-not-designed-by-Microsoft look & feel. They both look & feel like an actual part of Media Center, and appear very professional. This is one of the most significant changes, I only wish they could encourage more, faster development by 3rd Party developers.

bigscreen3rdparty4.jpg

Windows Presentation Foundation, re-use your Avalon code to build Media Center applications

I'm not a programmer, so I can't comment.

Hotstart

Not MCE related as far as I can tell, but no actual experience with it.

 

Vista MCE Hype Page 4


For good measure, I figured I would just also briefly mention some items that received publicity that are thus far, still vaporware. Who knows when we'll see these, but I wouldn't hold my breathe:


New Standard Remotes
 

This one really baffles me. You have one of the biggest product launches in history, and you don't even have a new $40 remote to sell users on? The worst part, so many people have been asking (read: begging) for the sideshow remotes, that this topic rarely even comes up anymore. Maybe they forgot...or maybe everyone's happy with their Harmony Remotes! ;-) Even when MCE2005 was released, we got a new remote (the thin one that had the backlight). I have not seen any timeframe on this seeing daylight.

Sideshow Remotes
 

These overhyped devices are supposed to make some practical use of the Sideshow features found in Vista. Supposedly with features such as allowing you to browse through your guide from it, bluetooth, and ability to control music library without being at the Media Center PC.
I've heard that manufacturers have had a ton of technical problems getting these things available to production. Part of the problem is current iterations have the upper Sideshow portion basically a separate part to the lower MCE Buttons portion. Hopefully it won't be much longer...and even worse, if they finally are available at an obscene price point.

ricavision-sideshow-remote.jpg

DirecTV support
 

So just in time for the Vista launch, Microsoft announced a partnership with DirecTV, with basically the same promises as with Cable Card--the ability to integrate Media Center systems with DirecTV satellites, without the need of set top boxes. I can't be too harsh on them since they did not mention a date...but yeah. Considering Cable Card is still having so many problems, I'd imagine most of their focus has been on getting that to work first, and not much attention is being paid to DirecTV.

Conclusion

Ok, so where does that leave us? I'm sure by now you've noticed quite a few dissapointments on the Vista front, and yet I personally run Vista and am quite happy. To be fair, in addition to the aforementioned "features," I've found my Vista box to be just as capable as my XP box was, and even more stable. If you're considering upgrading, as long as you fully understand what you're getting, there should be no buyer's remorse. And if you're buying a new system, it would be foolish to stick with WindowsXP because upgrading is NEVER fun. :-) I hope this helps some of you make a decision & dispell any incorrect assumptions you may have had regarding Windows Vista Media Center.

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